Nervous about Neonicotinoids: how much more damage can we do?
This month, it was announced in the UK of the emergency approval of neonicotinoids; a group of harmful insecticides that have been banned by the EU since 2018. The prohibition was introduced after increasing evidence of the lethal effects that neonicotinoids have mainly on our insects, which are vital for pollination, nutrient recycling, and food for other animals. The emergency use has come as a call to eradicate the virus yellows (transmitted by aphid crop pests) which may reduce sugar beet crops by up to 80%. Although this figure is scary, I can’t help but think that this isn’t the right way to go.
As neonicotinoids are known to be damaging, certain methods are used to try reduce their environmental impact. These insecticides are usually added in minute amounts to the crop seeds rather than through spraying. This aims to minimise the risk that the neonicotinoids will pollute ecosystems. These efforts, however, have been found wanting. It has been scientifically proven that these chemicals ill-affect various bee species and other insects. Studies have demonstrated memory disruption, reduced foraging ability, and in insect death. This evidence was collated into the largest review around neonicotinoids in 2015 that brings together the research on their impacts. The insecticide is still able to enter the wider ecosystem by up to 95% even when crops are not pollinated by insects, such as with sugar beets. This is possible through farming practices and natural breakdown processes resulting in neonicotinoid presence in our hedgerows, soils, wildflowers, and water bodies. Knock-on environmental effects have ensued to a multitude of other species from birds, mammals, and fish as outlined in the 2015 report. The new emergency use will cause the same effects at a time where our biodiversity is in crisis.
It is understandably difficult when considering crop losses as seen in sugar beets. It has been argued that losing this sugar source could result in greater importation of less sustainable sugar. But shouldn’t we be reducing these sources for our health? The majority of sugar produced from beets results in 1 million tonnes of refined, nutritionally void sugar yearly. As a nation we already consume on average double our daily recommended sugar intake (based on adult guidelines). In fact, a further report shows we only need an estimated 60% of sugar beet that is grown to meet our daily recommended sugar allowance! For the sugar we still produce, why don’t we use other non-damaging methods that benefit biodiversity instead? This can, and is, done. It’s times like these when we need to further rely on nature-friendly practices and promote these at a governmental scale. For example, this is possible with natural crop-pest predators, such as ladybirds and lacewings instead of toxic insecticides. The losses to sugar beets are on a time scale – but so is our biodiversity. We can work around sugar beet reduction, be that through crop diversification or increased sugar prices if yields fall. The latter of which may even reduce demand to benefit our health system. What we cannot work around is the loss of our biodiversity. The sooner we increase these practices, the better.
The issue is not as straight cut as agriculture vs. wildlife. However, we need to realise that biodiversity loss and human-induced climate change are intrinsically linked. Promises of environmental protection consist of more than halting temperature rises – just one part of the larger ecological crisis. Ensuring agriculture includes nature-friendly practices not only helps productivity through improving soil health and pollination but increases other crop yields and climate mitigating services (e.g. carbon storage) that benefit us all. As consumers, we have the power to create change through our buying habits. This promotes pressure to reward farming that enhances nature. These environmental components are not independent of one another and each is needed to ensure the most sustainable future. This cannot be done if insect populations are decimated. If we can’t manage our food in a way that includes wildlife, we will fail not just our natural world, but ourselves too. No sugar beets may mean we lose some sugar – an industry worth an estimated £208 million in the UK. Comparatively, insect pollination services are valued up to £1057.8 million in our country alone.
In the short term, the default must be to grow crops without the use of neonicotinoids despite the possibility of lower yields and look towards alternative crops. Reduced sugar beet could free up land for local vegetables, for example. In the long run, farming with and for biodiversity must be supported by our governments and demanded by ourselves. The case is clear: if we lose our insects…we lose everything.*
(*This blog is written by an independent writer. Beaver Trust welcomes a breadth of opinions, and those expressed within this blog do not necessarily reflect those of the Beaver Trust.)
Sam is currently working towards a Ph.D. in Environmental Sustainability at the University of Glasgow. Sam is a keen nature enthusiast aiming to connect people with wildlife, specifically our often-overlooked habitats and species in the UK. You can find her over on Instagram and Twitter.
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© Samantha Suter 2021.